Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Natural Living Food Co-op

I know, this is getting weird, but I did say the reviews here would be eclectic....

I would never presume to try writing a cooking blog, because I'm an inexperienced and messy cook, and there are a lot of things I'm not brave enough to try cooking or even tasting. But I'm so excited about the produce co-op that my husband and I joined a few weeks ago that I have to write about it. It's called Natural Living, and it's located in League City, Texas, which is just a little south of where we live in the NASA area of Houston. I've always been interested in the idea of farm shares, but I didn't think that would quite work for us because you have to take only what's in season on that one farm, so one week you might end up with eight cabbages and no carrots, and another week you might get all celery and no tomatoes, and so on.

But Natural Living is different; it's more of a purchasing co-op for organic produce. There is a $30 yearly membership fee (pro-rated if you join mid-year), and then you have the option each week to buy a "small share" ($24), a "large share" ($36), or a fruit-only share ($16) of what they've procured that week. Everything is organic, and as much as possible is local. And best of all, you opt in for the shares each week, so you are never stuck buying a carton full of produce on a week you're going on vacation or you have out-of-town guests or something else crops up (okay, yeah, that was on purpose....). Specifically, the way it works is that the folks at Natural Living send an e-mail on Monday listing what will be in that week's shares. If you want one, you e-mail them by Wednesday, and then you pick it up on Friday between 3pm-7pm or Saturday between 10am-1pm. (They also do delivery within a certain radius for a small fee.)

And let me tell you, you get a lot of food in that share. We've been getting the small share for a few weeks and wow! Our main reason for doing this is that our local grocery stores don't have enough organic produce to suit me, and it's a 50-mile round trip to the nearest Whole Foods, on the busiest highway in Houston. But the other reason is that I really, really want to eat a wider variety of vegetables, and I knew I was less likely to do that if I was seeking them out in the grocery store and having to make decisions on the spot. This way, I have a list on Monday of what I'll get on Friday, and I can find recipes and plan a little bit. And the co-op strikes a nice balance: I'm not getting wacky, far-out ingredients that nobody has ever heard of, but I am getting things a little outside of my normal arena. And in just a couple of weeks, I have found some new veggie recipes that I am really enjoying. Here are the new-to-me things that I've made in just the short time since we joined the co-op.

- Cabbage and Onion Griddle Cakes. The recipe, which I found on the Whole Foods website here, was actually for cabbage and leek griddle cakes, but I had mild bunch onions, so that's what I used. They tasted very similar to potato pancakes, even more so because I put a little unsweetened applesauce on top. I will definitely be making these again. And they work for any meal -- I even had them for breakfast.

- Creamy Avocado Dip, from a cookbook called Skinny Dips. The recipe calls for two avocados but I had one so I cut the recipe in half. Conveniently, the food co-op had provided me not only with the avocado but also with the lime I needed for the lime juice. Since I had never cut or peeled an avocado before, I found a YouTube video that showed me how (it was way easier than I expected), then I used my little bare bones food processor to mix everything up. The only unhealthy ingredient in it is sour cream, but it only uses a little, and calls for reduced fat. In fact, if you don't mind the dip a little less smooth, you could easily leave out the sour cream altogether, but even with the sour cream, this dip comes out to only about 100 calories per serving -- which I ate on sliced up cucumber (also from the co-op). It is really good, and if you put the avocado pit into the leftover dip in a airtight container, it doesn't turn brown quickly, so you don't have to eat it all at once.

- Easy Garden Green Beans. Green beans are another vegetable that I have never cooked before, in part because I've always been turned off by green bean casserole recipes that use cans of commercial cream soup as the base. For this recipe, found on AllRecipes.com, I simply cut the ends off the green beans, steamed them for six minutes, then tossed them in a dressing I made from a little olive oil, white wine vinegar, garlic, salt, and grated Parmesan (but not too much -- this is not one of those overly cheesy recipes). My husband and I were both surprised by how tasty these green beans were, and I'll be making them again.

- Fried Rice with Kale and Scallions. Can you believe this is from a cookbook by Gwyneth Paltrow? In any case, this fried rice is not so oily that it becomes unhealthy; you actually cook the rice as normal, steam the kale, then saute them together in a little olive oil with garlic and scallions. Kale is yet another ingredient I had never used and had only tasted once (kale chips -- they were not a success for me). The trick here is to cut it into tiny ribbons so it doesn't overwhelm the rice -- you can put a lot of kale into the dish without it becoming a fried salad. I will admit that 1) this dish is a little time-consuming since you have to do the rice and kale separately to start; and 2) it tastes better when you first make it, as opposed to leftover. But I do plan to make it again, just in a smaller quantity. And I plan to put a lot more ingredients in next time, such as diced bell pepper and maybe even carrots. I eat whole bell peppers at a time, and I've taken to saving the bits from the top that are still good to stick in other dishes later on.

In addition to these "fancier" dishes, I've also been doing simple things like roasting cauliflower (in my toaster oven! in Houston you don't want to heat up the kitchen too much even at this time of year) and just cutting up raw veggies like carrots and celery. I'm really happy about this because I did Weight Watchers a few years ago, and I noticed that when I switched to eating more veggies, I also slept better and got fewer migraines. And that's in addition to the weight benefits.

In a few weeks, the co-op, which is currently operated out of a house, is moving to its own building. They also offer some free-range meats and bulk dry goods, which I haven't taken advantage of yet. I'm looking forward to exploring my options with the co-op even more in the near future.

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